Joe and Rose Kennedy had four sons, but only Ted made it past middle age. We can only imagine what a 75-year-old John or Bobby might look like, but Ted escaped—barely and not at all cleanly—the tragedy that claimed his brothers in their prime.
So we got to watch as the inevitabilities of age took their toll. His hair went gray. His step slowed. His skin crinkled. And his waistline exploded—so much so that special, extra-wide podiums had to be shipped in for a debate in his 1994 Senate campaign.
And we watched as cancer—a disease that just about anyone who lives eight decades will end up facing—sapped him of his remaining vitality. We choked up at his wobbly valedictory in Denver last summer, gasped when he collapsed at Barack Obama’s inaugural, and recognized what was coming when he surrendered day-to-day control of his Senate committee—just as health care reform, the cause of his public life, was finally on its agenda.
It’s fitting that we saw all of this, because of all the Kennedy brothers, Ted was always the most human.
The others exist as myth-gilded symbols of America’s highest ideals—Joe Jr., the warrior-patriot who gave his life for his country in World War II; John, the P.T. boat hero with Hollywood charm who inspired a new generation of Americans to serve their country; and Bobby, the politician with a poet’s soul who dedicated himself to ending war, poverty and racism.
But Ted was three-dimensional.
Maybe his brothers cheated in college too, but only Ted got caught, expelled from Harvard in 1953.
Certainly, his brothers cheated on their wives and liked to have a good time, but again only Ted got caught—first when he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island and left young Mary Jo Kopechne to be discovered by police the next day, and again three decades later, when a Ted-instigated wee-hours trip to a Palm Beach bar resulted in rape charges against the nephew he’d brought with him.
John and Bobby were polished and urbane, playfully jousting with the press and effortlessly quoting poets and philosophers. It was John’s natural ease on television that may have put him over the top against the stiff Richard Nixon in 1960 (or maybe it was Richard Daley’s machine). And it was Bobby who broke the news of Martin Luther King’s killing to a black audience in Indianapolis in 1968 with an extemporaneous speech that brought out the best in a crowd filled with rage.
But it was Ted who couldn’t answer Roger Mudd’s simple question, “Why do you want to be president?” in 1979, who never quite found the right tone for his speeches, who mangled words and phrases with abandon, and who trailed off into mumbling incoherence at the end of sentences, inspiring the Mayor Quimby character on “The Simpsons.”
Neither John nor Bobby ever had to sit for an interview like the one Ted endured in ’79 with ABC’s Tom Jarriel, who opened with this: “Senator, you cheated in college, you panicked at Chappaquiddick—do you have what it takes to be president of the United States?” And neither John nor Bobby ever had to publicly promise, as Ted did after the Palm Beach incident, that they’d clean up their acts and “pay a little more attention to behavior.”
It’s almost as if Ted’s imperfections and recklessness were part of an effort to liberate himself from the life that had been chosen for him—that he would have been content to leave the politics to his perfect (or perfect-seeming) brothers, if only the family would let him.
It was his oldest brother, Joe Jr. who was originally the embodiment of the family patriarch’s monstrous political ambitions. And when he was killed, the responsibility fell to John, who explained in 1959 that, if anything were to happen to him, Bobby would be next, and that if anything happened to Bobby, it would be baby brother Ted’s turn.
When John was elected president in 1960, it was decided that Bobby would join his administration as attorney general and that Ted would replace John as a senator from Massachusetts. But there were some problems. First, Ted didn’t have much of a resume; a brief stint as an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County was about his only credential. More importantly, he was only 28 years old—two years shy of the minimum age for a senator.
So the Kennedys leaned on Foster Furcolo, a Democrat who was wrapping up his term as Massachusetts governor, to appoint a family-approved placeholder to the Senate—Benjamin A. Smith, who had been John’s Harvard roommate. Smith would quietly occupy the seat for two years, and then Ted would be free to run for the balance of the term in a 1962 special election. Furcolo played along, the plan was set in motion, and just after his 30th birthday in February ’62, Ted announced his candidacy.
But his status as an unaccomplished legacy dogged him. Spying an opening, Eddie McCormack, the state’s attorney general, challenged Kennedy in the Democratic primary. In their lone debate, McCormack, himself something of a legacy (his uncle was House Speaker John McCormack), managed a line that would haunt his opponent for the rest of his career: “If his name were Edward Moore, with his qualifications—with your qualifications, Teddy—if it was Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke.’’
Kennedy just stood there, but it didn’t matter: His name, his money, and the muscle of his brother’s White House overwhelmed McCormack in the primary—and were just enough to derail another legacy candidate, Republican George Lodge (son of Henry Cabot Lodge), in the general election.
But the Senate was supposed to be the same way station for Ted that it had been for John (and that it would be for Bobby)—a resume-building tool that would help make a future presidential campaign possible. And when Bobby was gunned down on the campaign trail in June 1968, Ted, barely 36 years old, suddenly found himself the last Kennedy brother with a shot at the White House.
Starting that June, Ted would dominate the national political conversation in the run-up to five straight presidential campaigns. He delivered a mesmerizing eulogy at Bobby’s funeral, flashing for the first time the rhetorical gifts of his brothers, and afterward the calls were loud for him to jump into the ’68 race and to finish the campaign that Bobby had started. But he resisted, and the Democrats instead nominated Hubert Humphrey, L.B.J.’s vice president, who still nearly beat Richard Nixon in the fall.
As it turned out, ’68 was probably Kennedy’s best chance at winning the presidency, since it was the only time he could have run without the taint of Chappaquiddick. He flirted with a 1972 campaign, keeping Democrats hoping until just before the Miami Beach convention, and did so again in 1976. In 1979, with Democrat Jimmy Carter in the White House, he decided the time was right.
But it wasn’t. Carter was deeply unpopular as president and his moderate economic policies had alienated much of the party’s traditional base. But almost as soon as Kennedy announced his challenge in November ’79, Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Iran and Carter’s popularity skyrocketed back home. Eventually, the protracted embassy siege would cost Carter—but only in the 1980 general election, and not in the Democratic primaries, in which he beat Kennedy soundly.
In many ways, the ’80 campaign underscored how different from his brothers Ted was as a politician—awkward and uncomfortable on camera, unnatural as an orator, and just plain unlucky in his timing. Those who’d followed John and Bobby on the campaign trail noted that, unlike his brothers, Ted didn’t seem to be having fun. It was like he was running for president not because he wanted to, but because he felt he had to.
The one bright spot came at the very end, after his last hopes of victory had been exhausted, when Kennedy delivered a powerful convention speech, closing with this rousing call to action: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hopes still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
The deeply divided hall was electrified in unity—until Kennedy snubbed Carter, who came to the stage hoping to clasp hands with his opponent in a display of cohesion. That fall, Republicans giddily aired an ad that showed a Kennedy savaging Carter on the campaign trail. Carter was probably doomed no matter what, but the lingering bitterness of the Democratic primary season didn’t help and Ronald Reagan was elected in a landslide.
The assumption was that Kennedy would simply turn around and run again in 1984. And two years into Reagan’s term, when a miserable economy helped Democrats pick up 26 House seats in the midterm elections, those ’84 waters were looking awfully tempting. A 1982 poll showed Kennedy pounding Walter Mondale, the other Democratic heavy-hitter eyeing the race, 54 to 31 percent.
And yet, Kennedy passed—in part because he sensed Reagan was stronger than most assumed, but mainly because he finally decided that he simply didn’t need to be president. He could say no, turn his attention to the Senate, and still make a mark. After more than two decades in politics, he was finally ready to chart his own course. The Senate wouldn’t be a way station, it would be his legacy.
His name was mentioned in the run-up to the 1988 presidential campaign, but only briefly. And it was mentioned with even less seriousness as 1992 approached. Of course, the other reason he wasn’t regarded as a potential ’92 candidate was the Palm Beach scandal, which marked the peak of a decade’s worth of bad publicity surrounding his private life.
Since his 1982 divorce from his first wife, Kennedy’s reputation had been increasingly defined by his appetite for booze and women. The Palm Beach story brought that reputation onto the front pages of mainstream newspapers across the country. People wondered why a 59-year-old U.S. senator was recruiting his 30-year-old nephew and 23-year-old son to join him for a night on the town—after midnight.
For the first time ever, Kennedy’s standing in his home state grew shaky. Even after Chappaquiddick, he’d managed to win reelection with 69 percent of the vote. But as his 1994 reelection bid approached, polls showed more than 60 percent of voters wanted him to retire. And on the morning after the September 1994 primaries, Kennedy awoke to find himself trailing the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, 43 to 42 percent. It was a Republican year nationally, and Kennedy was in serious trouble.
The turning point came in October, when Kennedy reluctantly agreed to meet Romney in a debate. The prime-time showdown broadcast live on all three of Boston’s network affiliate stations, and the national press corps showed up, too. After 32 years in the Senate, this is what it had come down to for the last Kennedy brother standing.
Expectations for Kennedy were low: The Palm Beach caricature of a stumbling, mumbling, inebriated and occasionally pants-less pol had resonated with the public. It didn’t help that Kennedy’s aides were forced to ask for extra-wide podiums to accommodate their boss’ girth. But when the camera lights went on, Massachusetts voters were in for a surprise: Their senator was a lot more with it, and a lot more feisty, than they had thought.
“Kennedy set aside his longtime fear of live television and transported himself to a night Senate session as though he were jousting with the likes of Jesse Helms,” Martin Nolan wrote in the next day’s Boston Globe.
The race wasn’t close down the stretch, with Kennedy ultimately winning by 16 points. It was the closest Senate race of his career, but it was also the last time he’d ever sweat an election: his 2000 and 2006 campaigns were the easiest of his career, with only token opposition aligned against him.
A fair assessment of Kennedy’s political career is that he grew into it quite well. It’s not at all clear that politics is the life he originally wanted for himself, and the agony of trying—and failing—to live up to the mythology of his brothers was only too evident for the first part of his career.
But he did settle down—first politically, giving up his half-hearted pursuit of the White House and devoting himself to the Senate, and then personally, remerging from the shame of Palm Beach with a new wife and a lifestyle that allowed him to recoup his lost dignity. It’s no accident that his most significant achievements came later in life, because it was only later in life that Ted Kennedy knew exactly who and what he wanted to be.